News broke today that Chris Huhne has finally admitted to being a liar. Previously Huhne pleaded not guilty to the charge of perverting the course of justice in relation to a speeding offence in 2003. We should not be shocked by this. Both Cameron and Clegg have been shown to be almost pathological liars. It seems lying is now an accepted part of our political culture.
We now know that Chris Huhne lied. None of us are shocked or even surprised. Lying is just what politicians seem to do – it is just part of the job, it would seem. Unlike many other politicians Huhne may have to face the consequences of his actions. However Huhne will not be punished for lying – he is entitled to change his plea, as he did today. His punishment will be for an offence that he originally ’denied vehemently’ but to which he now admits his guilt. In case you have forgotten last year Huhne said the following regarding the charges that today he pleaded guilty to.
This was now obviously a barefaced lie. When he said that, Huhne must have known he was lying to the press, to his constituents and to the courts. The question is – why did he think he could lie with impunity?
To begin with I think it is fair to say that these days lying is a big part of a politician’s job. They lie routinely. Cameron has lied about increasing VAT, balancing the books on the backs of the poor, the cost of private renting (more context), ‘paying down the nations debts‘ to name a few. Clegg lied about being opposed to tuition fees and perhaps most famously of all Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in the run up to the Iraq War.
A common (and very seductive) explanation of this phenomenon is that politicians, like bankers and former News of the World executives are arrogant, believe themselves untouchable; and hold a contempt for the truth which is only matched by a contempt for the public, whom they believe too stupid to realise they are being lied to. Certainly I would not deny arrogance plays a part – one must have a certain level of (to put it nicely) self-confidence to consider a career in politics, banking or tabloid media; however I think this explanation is a little too simplistic and individualistic.
I have written before about the tendency to ascribe moral failings to individuals rather than to look for structural causes to phenomena; and I think this argument should apply here as well. If we must have an individualistic explanation perhaps it is that politicians are intuitive philosophers who have an instinctive understanding of post-modern theory. Previously when discussing UK democracy I have argued:
[w]hen we speak of a relativistic universe where anything goes and anything can mean anything, we must remember how, in Britain, politics – understood as contestation over competing values and demands – has been excluded successfully from the meaning of politics (the ‘business’ of government). Such a vision of a crazy post-modern universe, where meaning is free-flowing and nothing can be defined objectively, no longer appears quite so absurd. But, rather, an empirical observation!
Post-modern/ post-structuralist theory is all about the lack of fixed foundations on which to root a ‘truth’. In many versions of post-modernist thought, truth is something which cannot be grounded on reason; but instead is an expression of hegemony or – in other words- what most people believe to be true. Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to post-modern theory, I think you must take this claim seriously, if not at a theoretical or normative level, then at the level of empirical observation. Our political reality – the truth – is indeed something that is constructed by discourse and not something grounded in facts or reason.
Consider the following examples regarding our current political discourse:
1. Labour created the 2008 financial crisis. This is regularly asserted by Conservatives and Lib Dems as well as the right wing media. It has been asserted enough that it is something that a great deal of people believe. In fact so many people subscribe to this belief it is almost considered as simple/obvious common sense. This is despite the fact that even a moment’s critical thought would lead anyone to question its validity. If Labour crated the Crisis why did it occur globally and not just in the UK (did Gordon Brown have total control over global market forces and if so one wonders how he lost power so easily)? In fact SKWalker has written superbly on what he calls the ‘Myth of the Inherited Mess‘ and this is well worth a read – not that it will do anything to destabilise the apparent truth constructed by ConDem politicians and the right wing media that Gordon Brown is entirely responsible for the 2008 crash.
2. That the nation is full of benefit scroungers which are the biggest cause of public expenditure. This notion is yet another widely held ‘truth’ despite the fact the unemployed people only make up a fraction of the welfare bill and it is regularly pointed out that tax avoidance by large companies is a far larger cost to the treasury than unemployment benefits.
Thus it is not (just) that politicians are lying bastards. It is more that they are involved in an ongoing battle to construct our shared reality. With their Generals (spin doctors) and weapons (the media) they battle to create a version of reality that suits their interests. Under our current political system they have little other choice. This is – when you cut down to it – the very essence of their job.
The problem is that people seem to be increasingly disengaging with politics. People are growing cynical (rightly so) and are tired of being told lies. Currently the mood is one of resigned apathy - nobody is shocked or surprised that Huhne has outed himself as a liar, for example. People are voting less and lack confidence in politicians and our political system. However the issue may not be the moral fibre of our politicians so much as the system that encourages them to ‘spin’ rather than give ‘straight up honest answers’. If the problem is viewed as one of individual moral failings; the solution is simple – sack the lot of them and replace them with better people. However I do not think this is the problem and do not think replacing our politicians with a new intake will make a great deal of difference, if the system remains unchanged.
The problem is our ‘democratic’ systems and institutions. They are old and no longer fit for purpose. Our media is in bed with elites and our democracy is nothing but a sham that increasingly fails to mask the reality of elite rule and corporate interests that sit behind it. The time is long over due to start thinking about reforming our democratic institutions. My humble suggestion is that we start to look at models of direct democracy, deliberative democracy and radical democracy and start to break away from the notion of representatives as, at best they will always fail to represent us, and at worst – well at worst- we will continue to have governments led by the likes of Blair or Cameron.
Other posts by Marxist Nutter: